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Make a Difference. Take a Stand.

As bullying among kids in schools (and online) grows as a national concern, Lee Hirsch's doc Bully sheds new light. How can you help make sure kids see the film?

Update 2.26.2012: This interview was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Since then, Lee Hirsch's film has been renamed Bully, and will be released theatrically on March 30.

Last week, Bully and its distributor, The Weinstein Company, appealed the R rating given to the film by the MPAA, based mostly on the language used by children in real-life situations. Their appeal for a lower rating—so that schools would be able to show the film to students, its intended audience—was rejected, despite a brave and impassioned plea from one of the film's subjects, Alex Libby.

Currently, Bully and the Weinsteins have started a petition. They are hoping to gather 100,000 signatures before they present the petition to the MPAA. Please help by signing the petition here. As the film's poster states: It's time to take a stand.

Bully Project

Tribeca: Please describe The Bully Project in your own words.

Lee Hirsch: The Bully Project is a feature documentary that takes a visceral look at bullying through the lives of five families. It is not a glossified, purified look; it's not an experts’ kind of analysis. Instead, it’s cinema verite.

We spent a year with kids and families who are dealing or have dealt with bullying, up to the most severe consequence: suicide. What we were able to capture is very revealing, in terms of how society generally deals with bullying, how families have to fight so hard when their children are being bullied, how administrators struggle to understand or to do the right thing in the face of it. In a way, we hope that it's the beginning of a bigger national conversation about bullying—I wanted to show: this is what bullying looks like. The film shows something that no one has ever seen before.  

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? 

Lee Hirsch: I was bullied as a kid, so it's something that has been with me for my whole life. It was one of those ideas you have on the back burner and you say, “One day, I'll get the balls up to make this film,” and the time came. What I really wanted to do was to show something that was irrefutable, so whenever somebody says, “Boys will be boys," or, “It's just kids and it’s just a rite of passage,” we could show that it’s just not that simple. We wanted to be able to initially document and get into understanding what bullying is, so that maybe there could be a shift in the conversation from that point. 

Tribeca: How did you cast the subjects for your film? 

Lee Hirsch: Initially, we started with a much broader concept for the film. The earliest incarnation was that we were going to look at bullying at school, in the work place, in global politics, and how that all stems from who we were in fifth grade. As we started to research and look for stories and characters, one thing was clear: the stories of the youth were most compelling, the most urgent and necessary to tell, and clearly dramatic.

We started with reading news stories. With big stories on bullying, hundreds or in some cases thousands of people would write in saying, “But my kid’s going through this,” or, “My son has been getting bullied for five years, and we've been to the school a hundred times and they just laugh at us and we can't get any justice,” and, “My child got his head crashed in and the police won't even take a report,” and, “Can anyone help us?” You couldn't imagine how many people were trying to tell their story.

And it wasn't even just parents; it was kids, too. Our first break in that regard came from a producer at The Ellen Show. She had just done a show about bullying and there were an enormous amount of replies. We started writing to them, and we started to talk to and interview a bunch of families.

We were also really lucky in that we met ultimately one of our funders, The Waitt Institute For Violence Prevention, in Sioux City, Iowa. They had been supporting schools in Sioux City, doing a lot of incredible work with programs around gender and violence prevention, anti-bullying curriculum; they really saw themselves in partnership with the school district as trying to make a difference in tackling the issue.

So we began a conversation with the school about what we were trying to do. With our other stories, if we tried to get near the school, they would be like, "Hell no. Bullying? No way.” This school—and the school board and the superintendent—listened and were willing to take a chance and allow us to film inside their school. We initially had access to a high school, a middle school, and an elementary school. And our central character came out of the middle school there: Alex, who's a seventh grader who's just the most amazing kid. We saw him on the first day, the orientation day, sitting off by himself, and I kind of thought, “I bet this kid gets it.” 

Tribeca: How did the school react to the film, as the administrators don’t always come off so well? 

Lee Hirsch: The reaction was really positive. The superintendent stood up and said, "This is why we did this; now we're going to be better." Another [administrator] said, "There is not an administrator in America that hasn't made that mistake, that hasn't been in that position, that can't relate to that moment." A sense emerged that young people are going to get something out of this film. And it speaks to kids at a certain level, but it also speaks to adults—to parents, to administrators.

We were really fortunate in that the school district said from the start, “We'd like to believe that we're ahead of the curve on this issue, but we're prepared to learn about things that maybe we don't know yet—things that by you guys being here, will make us better." So it's important to me that when we contextualize the fact that bad things happen in the school, and to this child, that there is still an incredible story about the school district and the school itself: they let us in the door and were willing to put that process to test.

I think that’s a really good sign that they are trying, because it’s a process. You need staff to come around, students to come around, leadership to comes in—it's a really difficult process to change the culture, in a building, in a school district. I think bullying has a lot to do with climate and school culture and what the particular dynamics in that building are.

Bully Project

Tribeca: When the cameras were on, did the kids know they were being filmed? 

Lee Hirsch: Yes. The scenes where you actually really see things happening to [Alex], I was there and I was filming. It was a very difficult position to be in, to not sort of jump in and kind of rip all these kids apart. Ultimately, we talked to the school and the parents about what was happening. I don't believe that they behaved any differently because I was there. And that's really weird—I can't prove it—but the kinds of things that were happening to Alex happened all the time, and the same ways that they happened when I was there. I don't think that my being there impacted what happened, I think it happened pretty much that way every day for him, and probably worse.  

Tribeca: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers? 

Lee Hirsch: Run the other way. [laughs] No, but I think wait until you have something you really love and believe in and then run full force. Literally, do it. Don't quit until you believe you have a film. Essentially the tools of production on this film were a $3,000 camera and on average, a $400 Priceline car/hotel flight package.  

Tribeca: What are you hopes for The Bully Project at Tribeca?  

Lee Hirsch: It's called project for a reason. I think we're at an interesting point with documentary work and activism social change—this collusion of foundations and NGOs and filmmakers. For us, we started with a really difficult question: What is our take on a subject that's so big? Is it legislative—do we want to try and say we're going to solve the issue of bullying in this film or come up with what the answers are? So we started to move away from all of these big, very hard to contain notions and work to really pare down what it is that we want our audience to get.

We have two key points. One is the idea that individuals are the ones that make the difference. It's a very basic thing. You want to stop bullying? Go stand up for someone that's being bullied. And in the school environment, if kids get that message they get empowered. The other is that schools are responsible for setting the climate, the tone; they have a huge role to play in whether bullying is something that is really festering and living and has a hold on that community.  

Tribeca: Do you want this film shown is schools, is that one of your goals?

Lee Hirsch: Yes. Communities, schools… We are about to announce a major partnership with, so that young people will be able to create their own projects around The Bully Project. Check out, and we have Twitter and a Facebook page and all of that.  

Tribeca: Switching gears for a minute, if you could have dinner with any filmmaker alive or dead, who would it be? 

Lee Hirsch: Fellini. He just that filmmaker that I was watching when I fell in love with film. I think the worlds he created most remind me of my inner brain. I would have really enjoyed to have been a fly on the wall on one of his films or to have the opportunity to sit down with him. 

Tribeca: What is one piece of art you are recommending to your friends? 

Lee Hirsch I'm enjoying this Showtime show called Shameless right now. It's great. I think that I'm definitely on the escapism vibe when I get out of the edit room at three in the morning. 

Tribeca: What would your biopic be called? 

Lee Hirsch: Oh, Lord, are you kidding? [laughs] Chaos.

Bully Project

Tribeca: What makes The Bully Project a must see? 

Lee Hirsch: I think The Bully Project is like no documentary I have ever seen before. It's raw. The Bully Project gives you a window into kids’ worlds that I don't believe has been achieved before in film quite the way this film does. I think people are immediately taken back to a time in their lives that's been long buried, so for adults, you're right back there. I think kids will appreciate the honesty; it's not whitewashed in any way. The language, the dynamics, the violence—they are very real. Really, you will be shocked when you see this film.  

Tribeca: Do you think it's something people should bring their kids to? 

Lee Hirsch: I do. I absolutely do. I don't think they should bring their five-year-olds, but I think if they have teenagers, kids in middle school or high school, absolutely they should bring their kids. They'll probably have some really powerful conversations with them afterwards. 

Bully will be released theatrically on March 30, 2012. Find tickets. Please help Bully by signing the petition here.

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